Bonnie Bassler

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At the 2010 Commencement, President Chopp bestowed upon biologist Bonnie Bassler the degree of Doctor of Science.

Bonnie Bassler, you are president-elect of the American Society for Microbiology and Squibb Professor of Molecular Biology at Princeton University, where your teaching has shaped and energized generations of both undergraduate and graduate students. Your groundbreaking discovery that bacteria communicate with one another via a chemical language has opened and defined a whole new field of biological research, leading to new possibilities for controlling destructive pathogens.
President Chopp's full introduction.

Thank you for that lovely introduction, President Chopp. Please let me highlight a few points.

One, I am the world authority on Vibrio harveyi, an obscure glow in the dark bacterium.

Two, I care deeply, very deeply, about whether or not bacteria — primitive, single-celled, brainless organisms — can talk to one another.

Three, I have spent 20 years deciphering bacterial languages. I've cooked up strategies to make bacteria speechless, flustered, and confused. I am the "Bacteria Whisperer."

And, to top it off, I think this is a perfectly reasonable and responsible way to make a living.

My lab wants to understand how bacteria communicate with one another, to invent strategies to interfere with their communication, and to use that knowledge to make new antibiotics. Our hope is to save millions of people from dying each year from infectious diseases.

The clinical use of antibiotics began 60 years ago. Our well-being and our life expectancy improved dramatically. The world thought the "bacterial problem" was solved. But over the years, bacterial infections that were once easily treatable have become resistant to all available antibiotics.

No new antibiotics have been developed in the past 30 years. That's one human generation but about one million bacterial generations. Bacteria have an enormous evolutionary advantage over us. You'd think we don't stand a chance. Nonetheless, I am completely optimistic. Why? Because my lab and others have brought a new way of thinking to the problem. Rather than killing the bacteria in an infection, we are knocking out their lines of communication — their "command and control." If the bacteria can't talk to one another, they can't coordinate their attack and the body's defenses can win. This strategy is working.

When I was sitting where you are sitting today (at UC-Davis), I never believed I could take on such challenges. I had then, and I have today, an internal critic, repeating: "You can't do it." "You will fail." That inside voice drones on and on, but my outside life — my real life, happily — is utterly different.

I live a life of discovery and passionate curiosity about how the world works. I run to lab every day to find out what amazing secrets my gang has uncovered and to think about how our findings can apply to human health. Beyond the lab, I influence policy makers to ensure that we live healthy lives and that the public understands the promise of science.

I have a good life. People listen to me. Somehow that surprises me because I still struggle with the feeling that I just don't measure up. Early on, I had mentors who encouraged me. Although I did not believe in myself, I thought, well, they believe in me, so maybe this will turn out okay. Now, I trust the young scientists in my group. So, again, I figure, this is going to work out. On the national stage, my heroes are now my colleagues and I think, what the heck, they want me here. In the end, the people surrounding me and the worthiness of the causes we pursue keep me from backing down.

Through time, I've also gotten better at turning down the volume of my internal critic. By now, I know that this negative voice is never going away. More importantly, I've found some benefit to that nagging voice. That voice keeps me from thinking too much of myself when delightful things happen — like receiving an honorary degree from Swarthmore. That voice keeps me critical of my science, so my group and I remain intellectually honest. That voice especially gives me empathy for young people. It reminds me that they might not yet believe in themselves. Hopefully, that pesky voice makes me a more compassionate mentor of my students and a more worthy steward of this nation's scientific future. Perhaps some of you have an internal voice like mine. Perhaps some of you have a different way to overcome your fears. Whatever method works for you, I hope, through time, you find balance between taming your internal fears when they seem overwhelming and exploiting those fears to give you a winning blend of humility and self-confidence.

Thank you for allowing me to be part of your celebration.

A huge and heartfelt congratulations.